Current (March 23): boondocking near Virgin, UT Clear, Breezy, and 73 degrees F at 7PM
We have laughed at ourselves a bit, wondering why we felt so compelled to barrel west from Florida. This morning, looking at our calendar and the map, it was obvious that we could have lingered a bit more. Now we will do the lingering, now that we are back West, and close enough to home that we can get there easily.
Although our next major stop will be Page, Arizona, around 444 miles, there is no need to speed our way west. Instead we will travel the side roads, avoiding the interstate once again. This morning dawned a bit less windy than the day before, but we were still happy to stay away from the high speeds required on the interstate and ambled north from our camp at Kirtland AFB toward Highway 550 and Farmington.
Not far from Albuquerque is the small roadside town of Bernalillo, lying low along the Rio Grande. Once an historic route, marking the pathway of Coronado as he searched for the “cities of gold”, I-25 now bypasses the community at breakneck pace. On another trip perhaps, it might have been fun to explore a bit, with a charming small town atmosphere that seemed to be strong and healthy. We did see a large sign for the Visitor Center at a local café that was encouraging. It was early morning, and we had barely started, so stopping just wasn’t in the cards this time.
Not long ago I read a great book, “House of Rain, Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest”, by Craig Childs. Somehow in all my reading about the southwest and its culture, I had missed this author. Since then I have sucked up as many of his titles as I can fit on the Kindle, he is a great writer, especially for long winter nights when I am tucked away at home dreaming of canyon travels. This book is Craig’s own well informed hypothesis about what may have happened to the Anasazi Cultures, and Chaco Culture specifically. I read the book last year, wondering then why I had never managed to get to Chaco, in spite of traveling extensively in other parts of the Colorado Plateau and hunting down ancient kivas, pictographs, petroglyphs,and granaries in untold canyons.
Once again, the spontaneous choice of route led us to another treasure. Looking on the map, I saw with astonishment that Chaco Culture National Historic Park was just a short jaunt from the highway. Well, I suppose 21 miles each way, with several of those miles being dirt road isn’t exactly short, but is definitely short when compared to the distance from home and the fact that we might never travel this way again.
There is a small campground at Chaco Culture NHP, but the last four miles of the road are especially rough, and there was no way we would take the MoHo there. We did see a few small van type campers, and one adventurous owner of a 24 foot View tipping and bouncing and bumping along on the way back out. Nah…we were content to drive in with the Tracker and enjoy the park for a day trip.
Of course, after being there, I realized that a day trip is only one way to experience Chaco, and a much better experience, a deeper immersion into the archaeological wonder that is there would take days or weeks. I would love to camp there in a tent and experience the night sky, wander where the ancients wandered, and try to feel the place more deeply than I could in a single afternoon.
We turned from Highway 550 at the well signed marker for the park, traveled 6 miles on paved road before finding a large level gravel parking area where we felt it would be safe to leave the MoHo. Since the park is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, there is no camping anywhere off the highway. When you reach the parking lot area, turn right, (west), and the road is paved for another 4 miles before continuing west with 8.5 miles of reasonably smooth dirt (not washboard gravel) road. The last 4 miles are not easy. Even in the baby car the road was rough, going through a couple of washes that would be impassable if there had been rain.
Once at the park boundary, however, the road is paved, with a 9 mile loop road that meanders past several of the ruins. As usual, we stopped at the visitor center, checked out the movie, the displays, and the maps and embarked on the loop road. I learned at the Visitor Center, that Chaco Culture is one of only 21 World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO in the United States. It is interesting to go to the World Heritage Site website and read about how and why places are chosen. Of the 21 sites in the United States, 8 are cultural sites and 13 are natural sites, with only one natural site, The Everglades, listed as a World Heritage Site in danger.
There are Anasazi ruins throughout the southwest, I have visited many, but nothing quite prepared me for the power and immensity of Chaco Canyon. From the mid 800’s to the 1100’s, Chaco was the center of trade and commerce that extended throughout the southwest. The artifacts excavated at Chaco in the early part of this century are still being deciphered, but include shells from the Pacific, great macaw feather capes from Mexico, gorgeous black on white pottery, and great stores of turquoise.
What is left today are the remains of several huge Great Houses, some with as many as 600 rooms, up to three stories high, exhibiting magnificent architectural detail and construction. In addition, the ruins suggest a deep understanding of astronomy. Over 400 miles of prehistoric roadway that connect the Great Houses to outlying communities are known. It was Craig Child’s story of his journey along one of these ancient roads the I most enjoyed.
As with archeology in all places, the theories are simply educated guesses as to the reasons that Chaco bloomed, how it was used, why it was left behind. The Hopi, the Pueblo Culture, the Navajo all claim Chaco is part of their ancestry, and their stories handed down through the centuries include stories of what Chaco was for their people.
Walking through the intricate maze of rooms, and standing at the edge of the Great Kiva’s, it was easy to imagine being in Chaco at the height of its glory. Some suggest that very few people actually lived in the Great Houses, and that they were used for temporary housing for people from many cultures gathering for ceremony and trade.
Time seemed to stop as we walked the trails, read the signs, looked for petroglyphs on the canyon walls. Our visit to Bandelier the previous day had been only a tiny taste of what Chaco was. I had skipped Chaco in the past, thinking, oh..the rock isn’t red there, the canyons look boring, that part of New Mexico is dull…and all sorts of other reasons for not going out of my way to find Chaco Canyon.
One of the most delightful aspects of visiting Chaco, was the Pueblo Bonito trail, where we were able to wander through the rooms and corridors, amazed at the intricacy of the masonry walls and their incredible beauty after 1,000 years.
As evening approached, and we finally forced ourselves to leave, both of us were so happy that we hadn’t let that dirt road warning keep us from coming to this magical place.
Initially I called several campgrounds in the vicinity of Farmington, our destination for the night, including one in the town of Bloomfield, one in Aztec, and Mom and Pop’s RV in Farmington. It was a Tuesday, it was windy, and yet it seems that at least one of those campgrounds would answer the phone or return my message. By the time we got to Farmington, it was getting close to dark, and I still had no word as to availability, so we looked at each other and said, “Is there a WalMart in Farmington?”
Sure enough with a look at AllStays.com, we found an “ask to park” Walmart symbol and it was right on our route. Before long we were settled in among a few other RV’s and several big rigs taking a break for a night’s rest at the back of the parking lot. Happy for a place to be, we even put out the slide without any problems and settled in just in time for nightfall.
These are the original logs, preserved in the dry desert air for more than a millennium.
Not long after we were settled in, I got a message from Pop, from Mom and Pop’s RV campground in Farmington, saying he had a pull through spot waiting for us and that they had been out to dinner. I called him back and he was extremely nice, even after I told him I wouldn’t need the space and was parked at WalMart. His parting words were, “That is great, just so you are safe and not having to drive when you are worn out.” Pretty nice RV park owner, I would say, and if I am through Farmington again, I’ll definitely check his place out.
We laughed about how good it felt to simply park and sleep, how quiet and safe it seemed, how the noise from the idling big rigs seemed to be low enough to not trouble us. The low temperature for the night was to be between 15 and 20 degrees, but that never actually materialized, and we barely dropped below freezing.
I slept like a rock, falling asleep with images and dreams of what Chaco must have been like 1,000 years ago.